Thinking about cooking and about getting things done

I love cooking.

One of my signature dishes is “spag bol“. Except the pasta I use is not spaghetti. And the sauce I make is not what most people would consider to be bolognese. Think of it as the Trigger’s Broom of cooking.

If I wanted to be precise I would call the  dish gramigna alla salsiccia. Years ago I spent time in Bologna, asking to be served ragu in maybe a dozen restaurants. Most of them served me  gramigna alla salsiccia. And what was good enough for the people of Bologna was good enough for me.

The experience of spending that time in Bologna opened my eyes to looking more carefully at how the meat sauce and the pasta differed by region, and for that matter why they differed. The more time I spent investigating the sauces and the pastas, the more fascinated I became by the whole thing.

I guess it was only a matter of time before I had to try and build a model for myself, one that spanned across the regions, one that represented at the very least a crude abstraction of all that was involved. Trying to do that made me think, not just about cooking the dish, but about the relevance of the process to other things I think about.

The first is about the time taken to do anything.

Visiting the kitchens of the restaurants in Bologna, talking to the chefs, I learnt that there was quite some flexibility in the time taken to cook the ragu. Most recommended at least four hours; some said eight if possible. At least one suggested I start the previous night, and let it simmer all night. For dinner the next day. But all of them agreed that the very minimum was around 45 minutes, and that too only if pushed; their preferred minimum was two hours.

45 minutes. 8 hours or even overnight. Quite a range.

I grew up in a family whose livelihood was journalism. It didn’t matter what was done, or not done, during the week; what mattered was that the issue had rolled off the presses in time to be franked for posting in the early hours of Saturday, around 4am. That was the deadline. No excuses.

Most things we do have a “maximum time”, a time by which something has to be done.

John Seely Brown, someone I have great respect and fondness for, said something very relevant to this debate many years ago. How long does it take for a four-year-old to become a five-year-old? One year.

Many things we do also have a “minimum time”, a time before which something can’t be done.

When I’m cooking the ragu, I need to know both these times, the minimum as well as the maximum. Once I know these, I can approach the rest of the job with confidence.

Whatever the job, you then have to lay the foundations in order to do it well. For ragu this consists of preparing the odori and the battuto so as to make the soffrito. The things that provide the aroma (the odori) combined with the things that are beaten up (the battuto) that are then “underfried” (the soffrito) in olive oil, until translucent, to form the base. Here, a little practice helps. Onions, garlic, shallots, fennel, parsley, basil, and bay leaf can give the aroma, while carrots and celery get used to regulate the flavour, the “sweetness”. You don’t have to use all the odori; but you should have the carrots and the celery chopped fine. Most people use a simple rule of thumb: the chopped onions are about as much as the celery and the carrots taken together.

Whatever the dish, whatever the job, it’s worth knowing the choices you have in building the foundations, why you have them, how to combine them, how to test them, how to use the feedback to refine the output, as many times as needed. Iteration is important even for the foundations.

Then you come to the meat. For this dish it’s sausage meat, the salsiccia. If you can’t be bothered to make the salsiccia the hard way, and if you can’t get salsiccia easily, then a 1:1 ratio of beef mince to pork mince will suffice. If pork is not your thing then substitute lamb. If meat is not your thing then making a meat sauce is probably not your thing either, though in theory you could use alternative sources of protein. But I’ve never tried that for a ragu.

It’s important at this stage to “seal” the meat, even though it’s minced. Ed Yourdon will probably call it high cohesion and loose coupling. David Weinberger will probably say “small pieces loosely joined”. They’d both be right. Sealing the meat ensures it doesn’t crumble into goop. The soft slightly oily translucent foundation helps with that sealing process and imparts additional flavour and aroma. Gently.

Once the meat is sealed, there’s a decision to make. Are you going red or gold? I was quite surprised to see that the ragu I was served in Bologna was usually golden in colour, a gold flecked with brown, rather than the red of the meat sauces I was used to. That was because the gramigna alla salsiccia route was based on white wine, the slightest whiff of chopped tomato, and optionally even some milk or cream; whereas the classic red ragu route was based on red wine and a more generous helping of the chopped tomato and tomato paste. You can’t go the red route and then add milk or cream.

I usually go gold. Once I had my first gramigna alla salsiccia I was hooked. No going back.

Some people add a few more herbs along with the wine, but there are many who prefer that all the herbs come at the foundation stage. I’m with the majority on that.

A good knowledge of the minimum and maximum time. Solid awareness of the ingredients, their roles,  and their relationships to each other. Real understanding of the options and when they come into play. Some interventions to refine the taste and flavour, based on active feedback. And patience to see the job through.

All the chefs I’ve seen in operation taste vigorously. Make a point of smelling the aroma regularly. Test the consistency and texture as often as possible.

Iteration. Active feedback loops. Knowing when and how to intervene. Always with an eye on the outcome.

That’s cooking.

Sometimes it’s also how you get things done.

In a perverse kind of way, I think of slow food as “agile” and fast food as “waterfall”. When I cook slow, I iterate, I learn, I react. And I keep doing that. When I see fast food being prepared, it’s about one way of doing things from start to finish, with standardised monitoring and alerts but no iteration.

I know what I prefer.










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